Restlessness-and-Worry

April 9, 2013

The restless, agitated mind,
               Hard to protect, hard to control,
The sage makes straight,
               As a fletcher the shaft of an arrow.        

Like a fish out of water,
               Thrown on dry ground,

This mind thrashes about,
               Trying to escape Mara’s command.       
The mind, hard to control,
               Flighty – alighting where it wishes-
One does well to tame.
               The disciplined mind brings happiness. 

-The Buddha, from The Dhammapada, Gil Fronsdal, Translator
Over the weekend I went out rowing with a friend, both of us in single sculls. We got on the water about an hour past high tide, the wind just barely a whisper, the sun in and out of the clouds, and the air was almost balmy. We watched egrets and great blue herons stand tall along the banks tucked in the even taller grass, large flocks of coots run across the water in a flurry as we came along, noisy Canada geese squawking overhead, and an osprey hunting for its breakfast. Pretty nice for a spring morning on Humboldt Bay.  And, of course, it didn’t last. In a heartbeat, the wind came up and the water started to chop. The current seemed to be moving in figure eights. With the tide rushing out and the waves coming in we needed to get off the water. Rowing in a racing scull in waves is dangerous and takes focus, balance and stability. The conditions were not good, I was worried, and the safest way to row was to concentrate…the antidote to the fourth of the Hindrances, Restlessness-and-Worry.

In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, he uses two sets of similes to describe the effect of the Hindrances on the mind when they are present and when they are absent.  When present, “restlessness-and-worry affect the mind like water stirred by the wind…causing one to be tossed about.” And when absent, “to be free from the agitation of restlessness-and-worry is like being liberated from slavery. Restlessness-and-worry can control the mind to such an extent that one is completely at its mercy.”
Working with this hindrance is the same as working with the others. Apply mindfulness. Know when it is present, know when it is absent. Allow the restlessness-and-worry itself to become the object of meditation instead of the obstacle to meditation.  
Investigate its nature. What does it feel like in both the body and mind when it’s present? Be curious. Investigation coupled with curiosity allows the stepping back from the demanding nature of restlessness-and-worry, the insidious way it holds the mind hostage. With mindful awareness, one can begin to see the causes and conditions that give rise to the state, along with the necessary conditions that allow it to dissolve. From this perspective, it is possible to directly experience just how fleeting and impersonal the hindrance actually is.

If the hindrance is absent, note what this feels like. The absence, too, can be the object of meditation. Gaining an awareness of the mind at ease is just as important as being aware of the mind caught in a snag. This awareness becomes a point of reference, a new set point for the next time difficulty arises. The more familiar you are with the experience of the natural ease of the mind, the more accessible this relaxed mind can be.
Practice Suggestions:
For the mind caught by restless-and-worry, try this concentration practice. Be sure to allow a relaxed breath in between phrases and see if you can get a sense of how each phrase actually feels in the body.
May I be grounded in my body
May my heart be open and stable
May my mind be clear and balanced
May I breathe in this moment with ease
When the mind is free of the hindrance, try this very lovely practice from Ajaan Amaro, a widely known teacher in the Thai Forest Tradition.
Sitting comfortably,
“Let the mind and body assume the natural ease and peace that is the natural ease and peace of the mind and body. Only attend to what disturbs the natural ease and peace.”
Breathe, recite the instructions several times, try to get a sense of this in the body. Take your time. Come back to it as often as you like.